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Torfaen to convert Grade II-listed office into temporary accommodation for the homeless

Pearl Assurance House in Pontypool

ADAPTING a Grade II-listed office building for homeless accommodation has been described as a more “sustainable” approach than housing people in shipping containers. 

As councils across Britain have struggled to house the homeless, innovations such as using shipping containers or modular homes – built at a factory before being quickly transported or assembled on site – have been used for housing. 

In Gwent, pods similar to containers used on building sites, which were pre-built in Hull, have been used as temporary accommodation for the homeless in the centre of Newport. 

But in Torfaen the council has said it hopes the conversion of the former Pearl Assurance building in the centre of Pontypool will better meet the needs of those needing temporary accommodation. 

Upper Cwmbran member Steve Evans asked if the council was considering innovations such as modular housing when the healthier communities scrutiny committee looked at how the council is responding to the ongoing housing crisis. 

The Labour councillor said he had been impressed after seeing a television programme that showed how former Manchester United footballer turned homelessness campaigner Lou Macari had used glamping style pods as homeless accommodation in Stoke-on-Trent. 

The council’s housing manager Simon Rose said the Pearl House project, on which construction work has recently begun, is a “prime example” of how the council is responding to needs and said its conversion to 16-bed accommodation, with support on site, will also bring previously empty town centre units back into use. 

Mr Rose, who said he’d also seen the television programme featuring the former Stoke City manager, said the council has “looked at a number of things such as converted shipping containers and pods” but said sites also need infrastructure such as water and electricity: “It’s not as straightforward as often portrayed in the press.” 

Cllr David Daniels, the Labour cabinet member for housing, said: “Pearl House is a very innovative project. It’s a fantastic, sustainable way of delivering temporary accommodation for individuals some who may have got hard into homelessness and haven’t had issues addressed early enough.” 

The Pontnewydd councillor said he felt Pearl House would be “more sustainable” than modular units. 

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Mr Rose said the intention is people should stay no longer than six months at Pearl House as they and support agencies look to find appropriate accommodation but he said a “rapid rehousing” approach is dependent on a supply of housing. 

But a lack of supply, a shortage of smaller and one-bed properties, rising house prices and private rents becoming less affordable as well as the rising cost-of-living are all contributing to the housing crisis in Torfaen, Wales and across the UK the committee was told. It was also acknowledged that issues, including mental health, are contributing to housing pressures. 

The committee will ask Cllr Daniels to write to Torfaen’s Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds to ask that he approach the UK Government and request it lift the freeze on the local housing allowance rate which has failed to keep pace with rising rents. 

It also wants the council to consider how it uses data to address housing need and consider how it could encourage the use of empty properties, with Cllr Daniels having said a council tax premium could be used to encourage owners to bring them into use.